The Sad Demise of a Village Cheese-Rolling Competition - Gastro Obscura
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The Sad Demise of a Village Cheese-Rolling Competition

It is no longer seen as “cool,” organizers say.

A team of children wheel a block of wood down the street in Stilton, England.
A team of children wheel a block of wood down the street in Stilton, England. Public Domain

For over 50 years, the villagers of Stilton, in Great Britain’s Cambridgeshire, have come together on May Day for a competition as cheesy as it is charming. But after months of discussion, the annual cheese-rolling competition is cancelled, organizers said in a Facebook post.

The rules to the game seem uncomplicated. Since 1964, people have used their hands and sometimes their feet to push a hefty wheel along the road. “Cheese rolling” is a bit of a misnomer: Actual Stilton cheese wouldn’t survive the activity. Instead, groups use rounded wooden blocks, cut from telephone poles and painted white like the cheese’s rind. The race began, town historian Richard Landy said, after a bypass reduced traffic in the town to a trickle. Local landlords came up with the idea of Stilton cheese rolling in order to draw visitors to the village. The race even makes its way onto the town’s sign.

Today, however, a plethora of pitfalls have helped push the 2018 cheese-rolling competition off the table. Costs are too high, safety and security remain an issue, and the team who organized last year’s event has retired. “No one has come forward to replace them,” the Facebook post said. But the real issue seems to be a question of image. It’s hard to believe, but according to the organizers, young people no longer consider the event “cool.” (It’s not clear what these teens are up to instead, though organizers cited underage drinking as one of a few safety concerns.)

On top of that, to make it “a real contest,” organizers said, you need turn-out. The ideal is 12 to 16 men’s teams and eight to 12 ladies’ teams. In 2017, only two teams came to the fore.

Confusingly, no Stilton cheese is actually made in Stilton. Under European Union law, no one is permitted to produce the famous blue cheese there, though it’s almost certainly where it originated. In 1996, Stilton manufacturers in nearby counties Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire applied for, and received, “protected designation of origin,” leaving the Cambridgeshire town out in the cold. Attempts from the local Stilton Parish to amend the ruling have fallen on deaf ears.

This latest snag may not represent a total meltdown for the May Day competition. On Facebook, locals expressed disappointment and a hope that the event would be back with a vengeance in 2019. “I can’t believe it,” Chris Payne wrote in a comment, in which he offered to volunteer. “Let’s face it, cheese rolling is one of the few things that really puts our village on the map!”

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